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Strata - Bradley P. Beaulieu and Stephen Gaskell

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strata - Bradley P. Beaulieu and Stephen Gaskell

I was a big fan of Bradley Beaulieu's debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo.  It's an incredibly nuanced epic fantasy set in a Cyrillic-esque second world (full review).  When I found out that Beaulieu was trying his hand at a science fiction novella, I was intrigued.  My curiosity was further piqued when I discovered he was working with Stephen Gaskell, as the merging of styles always interests me.

In the twenty-second century, Earth's oil and gas reserves have been spent.  Vast solar mining platforms circle the upper atmosphere of the sun, drawing power lines up from the interior to be sent back to Earth.  For the platforms' teeming masses, life is hard.  Most dream of a return Earthside, but a two-way ticket wasn't part of deal.

Set against the backdrop of this dystopian reality, Strata begins with a race.  Skimmers jockey for position along the sun's convection zone, dodging the plasma plumes that shoot into space.  Kawe is the best pilot on the platform.  He's only a few races away from winning the cup, and with it his freedom.  But, he has no intention of winning -- a Movement is afoot to overthrow the corrupt regime.  Kawe's friend and handler, Smith Pouslon, doesn't want to hear it.  He once tried to make a difference, and now he'll do anything to make sure his protege doesn't throw his life away.

The novel is written from the limited third person in two distinct points of view -- Kawe and Pouslon  -- and focuses on Kawe's attempts at revolution and Pouslon's desire to stop him.  While I presume each author wrote one of the points of view, the end product reads in voice that is neither Beaulieu or Gaskell.  The prose is polished, but also communicates a rawness that lends itself well to the cramped and hard life on the platforms.  Unfortunately, the short format never allows for the authors to provide much detail about the world they've created.  As a result, the race scenes, adrenaline fueled though they are, come across a tad muddled, not dissimilar to the criticisms I levied against Beaulieu's airship scenes in Winds of Khalakovo.  Instead, the focus is entirely on the novella's two protagonists, and from that perspective it's a rousing success.

One thing I couldn't get out of my mind reading Strata was the fact that Beaulieu is from Wisconsin.  Some may remember the discussions that dominated the state last year, when Governor Scott Walker tried to break the state employees labor union.  Not to get political, but I can't help but wonder if some of the inspiration for the novella stems from that debate.  The corporation that runs the platform oppresses its workers, selling them a bill of goods on Earth, only to revoke that contract once they find themselves stranded and without legal recourse.  While the structure of the argument is tangential at best, it seems clear that the authors are at the very least demonstrating the importance of worker protections.

Like all good speculative fiction, Strata is as much about now as it is about the future and Beaulieu and Gaskell do a tremendous job of making that connection.  Clocking in around 70 pages, and priced at $0.99 in all eFormats, I can't imagine many better (or inexpensive) ways to spend two hours.  Maybe if enough people buy Strata, the authors can be convinced to expand to a novel length -- there's certainly enough substance here to make the jump.

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At January 26, 2012 at 9:58 AM , Blogger Neth said...

I have a question that is pretty tangental to the post. Is this a self-published novella? It looked to me like it was since I couldn't find the name of a publisher and since it was only available as an ebook.

It sounds fun and interesting, though I don't read ebooks, so that could be a bar from me ever reading it.

At January 26, 2012 at 10:01 AM , Blogger Justin said...

It is. I thought I'd mentioned that in the review, but must have nicked it during edits.

At January 26, 2012 at 10:08 AM , Anonymous Brad Beaulieu said...

Actually, the bones of this was written well before Scott Walker stepped into office. I do try not to let my politics unduly influence my writing. But then again, it's impossible for that not to happen. And also, I don't think there's anything wrong with exploring the issues of today in our fiction. It acts as a backdrop, a canvas on which we can explore some of the ramifications. I'm not out to be didactic, but if it sparks thought or conversation, then, well, that's party why we read and write fiction, isn't it?

As for the policies of Wisconsin's current governor, one can well guess from reading Strata where I stand on that.

At January 26, 2012 at 10:10 AM , Anonymous Brad Beaulieu said...

Neth, not arguing, just curious: what is it that keeps you away from ebooks? I've heard more and more die hards making the switch. Personally, I love them. It's so convenient, and the actual reading experience is great, especially for someone like me whose eyes aren't quite as good as they used to be. I do wish there was some sort of easy backlight solution for the Kindle, but other than that, I love mine.

At January 26, 2012 at 10:10 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Couldn't agree more Brad. Very much enjoyed that part of it, even if it was written well before the much publicized Wisconsin kerfuffle.

At January 27, 2012 at 9:24 AM , Blogger Neth said...


My main reasons are 2-fold.

1. Propriatary software. Ereaders that have propriatary software and format limit flexibility. I want a single format that works the same on all platforms. I know there are work arounds, but I don't have time for that. Kindle is the biggest offender here.

2. DRM. When I buy something with my hard earned money, I actually want to own it. DRM limits what I can do with something. I simply want to be able do the same things I can with an actual book.

Given those, the biggest reason are probably actually that I'm old-fashioned and simply prefer to read books. I spend enough time staring at screens for work. Also, no one has bought me one and I'm kind of a cheap bastard.

I imagine an ereader would be much more convinient for travel than carrying 3 or 4 books.

At January 27, 2012 at 3:16 PM , Blogger Nathan (@reviewbarn) said...

Sweet, a review of an early Pratchett book!

Sorry, couldn't resist.

At January 28, 2012 at 11:40 AM , Blogger banotti said...

@SkynJay Cool joke :))


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